Author Stephen Covey once said that “most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” These communication problems have only been amplified with the onset of the social media age, where the majority of students communicate via text, Facebook, Snapchat and WhatsApp. We are reaching out to each other less and less in person or even over a phone call. Has this affected our communication with each other? When it comes in more important topics, such as the Repeal the Eighth discussion, is our form of communication helping or hindering us?
Teacher Paul Barnwell stated in The Atlantic that he worries about the younger generation’s conversational competence. In particular, the effect social media is having on how capable we are at holding a stable and balanced conversation. He says “kids spend hours each day engaging with ideas and one another through screens – but rarely do they have the opportunity to truly hone their interpersonal communication skills”. At present within Ireland, the topic at the forefront of many people’s minds is the Eighth Amendment debate. The question must be asked, how are we communicating our views? In broadcasting our beliefs in a certain manner, are we alienating those who fall somewhere on the fence? In terms of our debates, are we getting the balance right between talking and listening?
The Trinity College Student’s Union recently made a call for anonymous questions from students regarding the eighth amendment. One respondent stated “It feels taboo to discuss the moral or philosophical argument for abortion in pro-choice circulars sometimes.” The Student’s Union responded by creating an event entitled ‘The Eighth Amendment: An Open Forum’. The event page read “the debate can sometimes be alienating to those who find themselves somewhere in the middle”. This forum was an attempt to facilitate this issue and provide balanced discussion from both sides. At times, I can’t help but worry that the rhetoric used in the campaign, in particular online, is dividing rather than unifying those who are unsure regarding their feelings on the issue.
Twitter has been a prime battle ground with regards to the abortion debate, not only among students but the population as a whole. You need only browse a selection of tweets on the subject to read some incredibly unsettling comments. Some of these go as far as death threats, including those sent online to Brianna Parkins, the Sydney Rose at this year’s Rose of Tralee competition. Parkins made an open call while on stage at the festival for a repeal of the Eighth Amendment. Many people are calling for Twitter to create stricter controls on abusive language, with numerous reports sent to the company returning with the response “this does not violate our terms”. It appears there is little or no repercussions for this negative online behaviour. Of course, there is the valid argument that Twitter offers an unbiased platform for debate, but how far is too far in terms of abusive language? How much meaningful debate can really take place over a screen and in the space of 140 characters?
In November of this year, Fine Gael member Barry Walsh resigned following mounting pressure after the posting of derogatory Twitter comments on his account. Mr. Walsh will face an internal disciplinary inquiry over tweets in which female politicians like Fine Gael TD Kate O’Connell and pro-choice campaigners were described in derogatory terms, including “bitch”. He also posted a tweet about comedian and actor Tara Flynn, who is open about her past abortion. He wrote: “From what Tara Flynn says, she was pregnant and just couldn’t be bothered having a baby. So she had it killed. Why is she a feminist hero?” It appears that this unacceptable, derogatory language online can even come from a leading representative of Ireland’s ruling political party. Dun Laoghaire TD Maria Bailey said that “social media either can be too quick to have a go at or use profound language and it’s not the place to do it…”. She also spoke about the concern “about the profound language that is being used and the intimidation on social media with certain people”.
Many people were also left outraged when in August, a photo began to be shared online of a pro-choice Repeal jumper in the grotto of the Mary Immaculate Church in Inchicore, Dublin. David Quinn, Director of the Iona Institute stated that “It’s incredibly disrespectful and you can understand why people would be upset about it.” He then went on to say “I think it would offend most middle-ground people, never mind Catholic, I feel that most people would think it’s going too far.” Many of the pro-choice supporters defended this online stating there was nothing wrong with the imagery that was being posted. However, I cannot help but feel this type of communication is doing much more to alienate those who are not yet decided, ultimately harming hard earned votes.
Don’t get me wrong, it is extremely difficult to listen to someone that you fundamentally disagree with, but we have to engage with the other side of the debate. Nobody should have to endure bullying or abusive behaviour but surely there has to be a middle ground where healthy debate can take place?
The way we behave and converse is often representative of our views. These conversations may influence others, particularly those undecided. In this way, it is an important component in the battle for what we believe in. So, what can we do? Psychiatrist M. Scott Peck stated that “true listening requires a setting aside of oneself”. Of course, this is easier said than done, but it does not mean it should not be attempted. Instead of listening with the intent of replying, we need to get better at listening to understand. In this way, we need to lessen our debate online and get back to face to face discussion. Meeting people, canvassing and holding open forums and discussions are the right way to go. We need even more of this person to person communication. It is only when we do this that we can begin to truly win influence and most importantly, votes.
Fiona Keaveney – Features Writer